• What is Witchcraft?

    It is tempting to use Harry Potter as the quintessential defining character of a witch. If you have a wand, a supernatural sign on your forehead, you walk into walls and above all, you know a whole lot of Latin, you must be a witch. This is the glamorous television definition but in Africa, a witch is a fugitive in the Central African Republic and an enemy of the people in most countries. Witches will be stoned, burnt, killed and stoned again in some countries. Being labelled a witch is therefore, nowhere close to making anyone a famous Harry Potter. It is a curse in itself; a death sentence. “Witches” are believed to bring misfortune, disease and death. At times sexually transmitted diseases like HIV/AIDS have been attributed to witches thus providing an easy excuse for infected men who molest young virgin girls to purge their bodies of illness. It is an interesting fact of African witchcraft that most “witches” are older women as seen by Yaseen Ally in Witch Hunts in Modern South Africa: An Under-Represented Facet of Gender-Based Violence. Witchcraft accusations in Africa are therefore in a way a tentacle of gender-based violence.

    That the Western pop culture has Harry Potter is proof that they too believe in witches and after all, the Witch Trials of the 16th to the 18th century are not easy to forget. It is therefore an almost universal belief and where there is Christianity, chances are high, a belief in witchcraft is also alive. However, in the rest of the world, cases of witches being burnt on the stakes are now history. On the contrary, Africa seems keen to cleanse its land of the so-called “witches”. How is this witchcraft defined though? What is the standard? Should a witch be caught casting spells at a grave-yard or maybe seen flying, sitting on a broomstick? Witchcraft is an elusive term to define but the understanding in Africa is that this is a spiritually malicious activity and anyone who practises it deserves to die.

    The Modern African Witch-Hunts

    In 2014, a Tanzanian Human Rights group estimated that 500 suspected witches were killed in Tanzania annually. In fact, that year, 23 people had been charged with murder after burning 7 villagers on the basis of witchcraft accusations. This is absolutely horrific but a quick visit to the Central African Republic shows how this country takes the bar even higher. In the Central African Republic, The Telegraph reported that some sources claimed half of the country’s jails were taken up by those accused of witchcraft. Christian militias in the country were accused of burning witches at the stake in a UN reported leaked in 2015. The reported is said to have contained “graphic photographs of victims tied to wooden stakes being lowered towards a fire as well as the charred torsos of those subjected to the ritual”. 2012, in Kenya, along the Indian Ocean coastline, the Daily Mail reported that the dsire for land held by elderly residents had driven up the number of witch lynchings in the area. A 100 year old, Sadaka Muruu had been dragged naked from her home in January 2012 by relatives and neighbours claiming they had caught her practising witchcraft. That particular year alone, over 60 people aged over 50 had been lynched. This year, a mob in southern Malawi burned seven men to death for possession of human bones they allegedly used for witchcraft. One of the seven had admitted to having human bones. It is a known fact that in Malawi and other countries like Mozambique and Tanzania, albinos are killed for body parts which are used in witchcraft rituals.

    A belief hard to debunk

    The modern conception of witchcraft has obviously been shaped by the new religions from the Middle East; Christianity and Islam. Some Christian Pastors are known to fleece money from congregants who buy anointed products which they hope keep them safe from witchcraft. Violent exorcisms are common place in some churches and this only feeds the frenzied superstition. However, there are moments that make everyone pause and ponder. With the advent of social media, a paranormal event can easily become viral like the naked woman found in Zimbabwe’s Chitungwiza Unit O near a Forward in Faith Ministries church. This is not an anomalous case as so many such stories substantiated by pictures do the rounds on Whatsapp and other social media platforms. As they are simply communication passed from one person to the next, salted and seasoned by sensation, they are hard to just take at face-value and believe without question. More inquiries need to be done but if the old adage “there is no smoke without fire” is anything to go by, it seems there is some freak show going on at night as the rest of the people sleep. The killing of witches cannot be condoned no matter what the surrounding circumstances are but the “witches” who confess to their deeds are hard to defend. These “witches” agitate the masses by claiming they did indeed “kill and eat” people. Some do it out of fear after torture but what of the rest of them? What of those who genuinely and proudly affirm that they “kill and eat”? These “witches” make the witchcraft debate an utter conundrum.

    Can one therefore say witchcraft is real or not? It is not easy to come up with a position that is substantiated by irrefutable arguments. Africa may want to move from the belief in witchcraft claiming it to be primitive and irrational but the truth is there have been a lot of moments people are exposed to something out of the ordinary. What shall be said of those moments then?

    What is clear, however, is that killing the “witches” itself is unadulterated witchcraft and those who kill under the guise of a strong belief in “spells and charms” deserve no mercy. People who shield their bigoted and twisted minds behind beliefs cannot be tolerated.


    Image Credit: Brighter Brains